Succession Management 101: What Your Company Can Learn From the Royals

Given the buzz about the royal birth in England earlier this year, it seems only right to talk about succession planning.


The Brits truly have the succession issue covered. Thanks to some visionary parliamentarians in the 17th century, ascendancy to the throne is regulated according to strict requirements. Go to the official website of the British monarchy and you’ll find that they have it mapped down to the 50th person in line for the crown.


Do you know the 50 people most qualified to fill any of your company’s top leadership positions? How about five people? I thought not. Corporations are not monarchies (at least most aren’t) and succession management is not woven into their organizational fabric. The requirements for ascendancy into mid- to top-level positions are seldom determined with great rigor or depth; if competency profiles exist at all, they are typically sketchy and out of date.


The lack of clearly defined, relevant “success profiles” for key positions is a major reason why many companies are finding it so hard to fill their leadership pipelines. I often hear the excuse: “We don’t have time to do a thorough job analysis, so we’re just going to use what we have.” The pushback is obvious: if you don’t have time to be clear about what you’re looking for, be prepared to spend untold hours and money making up for promotions that don’t work out.


A well-functioning succession management process is built position by position with clearly defined requirements for each key role in the organization and supported by a diverse pool of high potential talent who can be deployed when required. The process can be time-consuming – particularly if you are starting from scratch – but it is not complex. Basically, there are two steps:


Conduct “greatness interviews” – Organizations need to clearly define what is required to be successful in a given position. One approach that works well is to evaluate the characteristics of top performers already in the company, since those behaviors are likely to be predictors of future success. It is these people – not HR, not corporate – who are the real subject matter experts on the requirements of the job.  To learn what they know, conduct a “greatness interview”: sit down and talk with the individual (or individuals) to find out how they are performing at a high level and what it takes, in their view, to be successful.  It’s important to evaluate the whole person, including capabilities, knowledge areas, experiences, motives, values and personality traits. Once you have a raw list of success factors, you can factor in the organization’s forward-looking business plans and strategic directions to create a success profile that will account for both current and future requirements.


Refresh the profiles regularly – Businesses strategies are constantly evolving and success profiles must keep pace accordingly. I see many organizations try to leverage competency frameworks that have been in place for years, straining to force-fit outdated requirements into positions that have changed significantly.  Organizations with world-class leadership development programs revisit their success profiles often – two, three, four times a year. Aim for an annual review at the very least.  And be as forward-thinking as possible. What capabilities will be needed next year, in three years, in five years? Greatness interviews, conducted skillfully, often yield revealing insights into how key roles are changing and what lies ahead.


The soundest business strategy in the world will fail without the right talent in place to execute it. There is a critical need for HR and business leaders alike to get in front of succession planning and speak to the value of success profiles at the highest levels of the organization. In my next blog, I’ll discuss the four building blocks of the success profile and why you might want an objective third party to conduct your greatness interviews.



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